People gather to remember Parmjit Singh during a candlelight prayer vigil in Tracy, Calif. Photo courtesy of United Sikhs

In Northern California, Sikh community is on edge after killing of 64-year-old man

LOS ANGELES (RNS) — Parmjit Singh was a family man who enjoyed spending time with his grandchildren, taking walks to the park and the game of field hockey.

His life was cut short in late August when he was fatally stabbed in Tracy, in the Central Valley east of San Francisco. Singh, a 64-year-old Sikh man from India, was wearing his traditional turban when he was killed. A 21-year-old man has been arrested in connection with his killing.

Parmjit Singh’s death has left the Sikh community on edge as his family copes with the loss of a man they describe as “nice, loving and caring.”

Singh’s son-in-law, Harnek Singh Kang, said he has struggled to break the news to his children. He’s grappled with how to explain that their grandfather “is no more.”

“When we try to explain, they start crying,” Singh Kang said. “My kids, especially, loved him so much.”

Parmjit Singh came to the United States from India about three years ago. He worked at the Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory. He was often seen taking walks around the neighborhood. He enjoyed sports with his grandkids, including field hockey — a game his daughter, Singh Kang's wife, played back in her home country.

Parmjit Singh in Tracy, Calif., in an undated photo. Photo courtesy of Harnek Singh Kang/United Sikhs

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She played for the Indian Railway team in India where, according to Singh Kang, women athletes experience certain challenges. His father-in-law, he said, was always supportive. 

On Sunday, Aug. 25, Singh Kang said his wife had invited her father to spend time with them on the hockey field, but he decided to take a walk. He was killed that evening.

The family has scheduled a public funeral for Parmjit Singh on Saturday, Sept. 14.

Singh Kang said they decided to invite the public because his father-in-law was “so friendly to everybody.”

The nonprofit United Sikhs is legally representing the family and has created a GoFundMe page to raise money for funeral expenses. More than $2,100 had been raised as of Friday. 

“The common phrase in Sikh scripture that we’ll hear over and over again, including at the funeral, is we recognize the human race as one,” said Megan Daly, a spokeswoman with United Sikhs. “The family felt very adamant that they wanted to reach out to all members of the local Tracy community and the greater state.”

As part of Sikh custom, Langar (community meal) will be offered to all in attendance. 

United Sikhs, which monitors hate crimes against Sikhs and Muslims in the U.S., reached out to the family and the local gurdwara, a house of worship for Sikhs, when they learned about Parmjit Singh’s killing. The organization has pushed for hate crime charges.

Daly said United Sikhs reached out to the FBI and filed a report of a hate crime. The FBI has met with the family, Daly said.

Sikhs believe in one God and trace their tradition back to 1469 in the Punjab region of South Asia. The Sikh faith dismisses social distinctions that lead to inequities, including gender, race and religion.

The Sikh population in the U.S. is estimated at more than 500,000. A visible detail of the Sikh identity is the turban, which can be worn by both men and women. In South Asian culture, kings and rulers wore turbans to highlight social status. Sikh gurus adopted this practice to remind Sikhs that “all humans are sovereign, royal and ultimately equal.”

To Deep Singh, secretary of the gurdwara in Tracy, it’s important to reflect on the misconceptions surrounding the Sikh faith. He acknowledged that many still confuse Sikhs with Muslims and said, “There are always good and bad elements in every community.”

He noted the basic Sikh principles, such as honesty and equality, “are very close to the American Constitution.”

There just needs to be “more education to the masses,” he said.

To Singh Kang, who has been living in Tracy since 2001, his father-in-law’s death is a reminder of other violent incidents affecting the Sikh community.

The attack is just a month after an assault on a priest at a Sikh temple about a half hour from Tracy. Two Sikh men were also attacked last year in local communities.

“I don’t know if it’s a hate crime or what it is,” Singh Kang said. “We need to be careful. This is not the America that we had before. It’s totally different.”

“You don’t feel safe in public places. We need to be careful with each other,” Singh Kang said. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.